It was years before the rise of the Taliban. In the 1970s,then civil servant,Jamil Ahmad spent hours interacting with the locals in Swat Valley. When I lived and worked there,I did not find the land or its people insular or inhospitable, he says. While the 40-year-olds wife Helga encouraged his keen interest in exploring the area,she dismissed his interest in penning poems. Instead,she nudged him to write about the tribal areas where they spent most of their lives.
Today,at 78,Ahmad is grateful to his wife. The Islamabad-based former civil servant made his literary debut in 2011 with The Wandering Falcon,published by Hamish Hamilton,an imprint of Penguin Books. I have a feeling of bemusement,which has not faded so far, says the author,speaking about the success of the novel. The publication has been longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in Delhi last month.
The narrative follows the life of Tor Baz,an orphan who travels the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan,across the mountains and through the plains. He becomes a wanderer a wandering falcon in his formidable world. Originally written as a collection of short stories,the book is based on Ahmads experiences in Balochistan and the surrounding areas. I am not in touch with the people in the area, says Ahmad,who spent his childhood in Delhi. He fondly remembers his classmates at St Columbas School and the hours spent playing marbles and catapult in the neighbourhood of his house on Metcalf Road. I remember Wengers and playing cricket matches on weekends, says he.
Pondering over the thought of writing another novel,Ahmad recalls how The Wandering Falcon took almost 40 years to publish. The raw manuscript was ready between 1971 and 1973. In 2010,my younger brother heard about a short story competition on a radio broadcast and asked my wife to send him the manuscript. He cleaned it up and sent it to Karachi, says Ahmad,confessing that he has been a scribbler most of his life. His second novel,meanwhile,might also take some time. I keep putting the decision off. I might decide one way or another,maybe after a month or two, he says.